Educators Give Fiction Lots of Class

Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus

My wife’s latest semester as a French professor has begun, and my younger daughter started high school this past Thursday — meaning I have education on my mind. So I thought I’d offer an updated, edited amalgam of my 2015 post about teachers in literature and my 2012 post about professors in literature.

Many educators in fiction are smart, hardworking, and compassionate — like most real-life educators we and our children have had.

One of my favorite classroom characters is Anne Shirley in Anne of Avonlea, the first sequel to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Anne becomes a teacher while still a pre-college teen — and predictably things don’t always go smoothly. But she is kind and imaginative, and earns the love and respect of her Canadian students.

Another beloved teacher is Charles Chipping — of James Hilton’s novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips — who’s a rather rigid, conventional educator until he warms up over the course of a many-decade career at an English public boarding school.

Also in England, innovative teacher Ricky Braithwaite wins over his at-first-unmotivated students in E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love — later made into the famous movie starring Sidney Poitier.

Jane Eyre was briefly a teacher, and a good one, after fleeing Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. (Previously, she instructed one kid — Edward Rochester’s ward Adele — while governess at Thornfield.) Jane’s teaching approach was undoubtedly inspired by the wonderful Maria Temple at the initially miserable Lowood institution Jane was forced to attend as a girl.

In American fiction, among the many excellent educators is drama teacher Dan Needham of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Great teachers abound in children’s books, too, with one of the most memorable the ingenious, enthusiastic Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus series written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen. Also a popular animated TV series.

Of course, not all teachers are terrific. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for instance, educators range from admirable (think Minerva McGonagall) to incompetent (think Gilderoy Lockhart).

Then there are teachers somewhere in the middle of the competence spectrum. Ida Ramundo means well in Elsa Morante’s novel History, but her classroom performance deteriorates as she becomes overwhelmed by various disasters while trying to survive in Nazi-occupied Rome.

The teacher title character in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is charismatic but unfortunately has fascist sympathies.

On the irresponsible side is young teacher Aimee Lanthenay, who has an affair with the student star of Claudine at School. But almost everything is played for laughs in Colette’s first novel, so the major ethical breach seems somewhat muted.

Moving to higher education, we have professor protagonists — a number of them quirky. There can be drama in their interactions with students, in their competitive relationships with fellow profs, in their sometimes-fraught encounters with university administrators, in their quests for tenure, and in the whole publish-or-perish thing. All that makes up for the fact they are (usually) not the heroic, adventurous sorts who make readers turn pages faster than tuition payments drain a bank account.

Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs tells the alternating stories of a professor (Virginia Miner) and junior faculty member (Fred Turner) from the same Ivy League university. Both Americans are (separately) in London, where they do research and soon find themselves in opposites-attract liaisons — i.e., “foreign affairs.” But the highlight of this Pulitzer-winning novel is “Vinnie” Miner herself — a 54-year-old specialist in children’s lit who Lurie describes as “small, plain, and unmarried.” She’s polite, reserved, resentful, self-deprecating, and REALLY smart.

There’s also Tony Fremont in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride, which focuses on three middle-aged friends dealing with the reappearance of a scheming, supposedly dead woman who had wreaked havoc on their lives. One thing that makes Tony such an original character is that she’s a somewhat timid woman whose academic specialty is…the macho history of warfare!

Marine biology is Professor Humphrey Clark’s specialty in Margaret Drabble’s novel The Sea Lady, which co-stars Clark’s ex-wife Ailsa Kelman. One interesting thing about this novel is the contrast between the low-key, scholarly Humphrey and the flamboyant Ailsa, who’s a TV personality (among other things).

Then there’s Michael Chabon’s seriocomic Wonder Boys, about a Pittsburgh prof with a rather chaotic life. Grady Tripp’s wife walks out on him, his lover (the college chancellor!) is pregnant, one of his students commits a weird crime, and he’s writing a way-too-long mess of a book after enjoying success with a novel. That last situation is sort of a goof on how some academics don’t write with the average reader in mind.

Seventy years earlier, Willa Cather penned one of her lesser-known novels, The Professor’s House — which focuses on history prof Godfrey St. Peter’s midlife crisis as he moves into a new home, becomes an empty-nester, and worries about where society is heading.

Also, there are the unlikable academic rivals Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and the unsympathetic prof Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.

In May of this year, you might remember me raving about John Williams’ bleak novel Stoner starring a Missouri farm boy-turned-professor who endures a mostly heartbreaking life but finds some solace in a love of learning and literature.

Who are the fictional educators you remember most?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about Hurricane Ida’s remnants slamming my town — is here.

68 thoughts on “Educators Give Fiction Lots of Class

  1. Mildly surprising that, with many so writers who have spent some time at the head of the classroom, there wouldn’t be even more examples of teachers in fiction.

    But, since no one else has mentioned “Lucky Jim”, Kingsley Amis’ 1954 novel about a university history lecturer, his foibles and scrapes with administration and class and drink and neurotic romance, I will.

    Non-spoiler alert:
    Despite missteps, Jim lands on his feet.

    In my own life, I’ve known two novelists who made ends meet at school, one of whom hates being reminded he wrote one, and the other who taught me writing but left teaching English as soon as he was able.

    I thought of another example of fictional teachers, only to realize that, as with “Lucky Jim” above, I’d be repeating my entries entirely for your earlier column on the topic: Swiss novelist Robert Walser’s “Jakob Von Gunten”, a novel about a very strange upper-middle class boy who enrolls himself in a very strange school for servants, with surreal results all round.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Yes, many writers have taught and many teachers have written. And there are undoubtedly many more teacher characters in literature of whom I’m not aware. 🙂

      “Lucky Jim” and “Jakob Von Gunten” are two very interesting mentions! I remember reading Robert Walser’s “The Assistant” on your recommendation — a really compelling novel.

      Like

  2. Two mystery writers came to mind, the first being Robert Bruce Montgomery (using the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin) who wrote a series of classic crime novels featuring an Oxford don, Gervase Fen, at a fictional college.  The best known of these books and my favorite is “The Moving Toyshop.”  Montgomery wasn’t an academic himself, but was a composer of vocal, choral and film scores.  Another mystery writer that I really loved was Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, who wrote as Amanda Cross.  She was a professor of English at Columbia University for over 30 years and was the first woman to be granted tenure in English. Her protagonist in this series of 15 novels was Kate Fansler, also a professor of English, and titles include “The James Joyce Murders” and “The Theban Mysteries.”  Heilbrun specialized in British modern literature, with her main interest in the Bloomsbury Group.  She was quite the feminist and a rather interesting character.  Per Wiki, “In the book ‘The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty,’ Heilbrun expressed her desire to take her own life on her 70th birthday because ‘there is no joy in life past that point, only to experience the miserable endgame.’ She turned 70 in January 1996 and did not follow up on her idea at the time.”  She did however follow through on ending her own life seven years later, which she considered a “basic human right.”

    Just a few other quick notes on this topic, Dave.  Although this film wasn’t adapted from a book, there was “Dead Poets Society,” famous for starring the fabulous Robin Williams as a teacher, as well as for the ubiquitous “Carpe Diem” (or “Seize the Day”), though I don’t hear it used very often these days.  Also, the song that was the theme for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” was written by Rod McKuen and sung by Oliver who noted, “We had no idea it would be a single. It was a 3/4 ballad in the psychedelic era…it was a beautiful arrangement.”  I think I loved the song “Jean” mostly because Jean is my middle name. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      Great information on those two mystery writers and their educator characters. Your comment made for fascinating reading. An author being an English professor who creates an English professor character…love it. 🙂

      I remember that song “Jean.” It was a beautiful tune indeed. And nice that the song name matched your middle name!

      Like

  3. A perfect topic for this time of year 🙂 And a lot of good mentions in your post! I might use the opportunity to once again mention the Chilbury Ladies Choir and the director – Miss Primrose Trent, who becomes so much more than a musical teacher to the women in her choir. Another very recent read I might mention is “Fifty Words for Rain,” a beautifully written if painful story where the main character’s brother teachers her to play violin despite her abusive grandmother’s wishes that she remain unseen and unheard. Which gives her at least one person to rely on in a world that is quite hostile towards her race and background. And a book I just finished last week, “the Midnight Library” by Matt Haig, has the main character forging a bond with her school librarian, a caring woman who eventually steers her through many different lives in a parallel universe library! A very fun read if you have the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Dave … I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’ve never read anything by Margaret Atwood. However, after reading your description of The Robber Bride, I’m about to change that. Thanks for another fascinating column!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you very much, Pat! 🙂

      In some ways, “The Robber Bride” might be my favorite Margaret Atwood novel — even though it’s not as “consequential” as some of her other books. If you do read it, I hope you find it as compelling as I did.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Funny you should have this as your theme because I’ve been making a list of movies I like based on books I haven’t read, and I recently googled Sandy Dennis to see whether the movie she was in (“The Four Seasons”) was based on a book. I must add thow much I admired Sandy Dennis as an actress. Well, it wasn’t; however, Up The Down Staircase kept popping up based on a book by Bel Kaufman so I added it to my list. Also would like to mention Jane Eyre, governess and teacher, who possessed some of the best qualities any educator could possess, ie patience, gentleness and sweetness of spirit despite how ill she had been treated as a result of her unfortunate circumstances. And since I’m currently reading The Aspern Papers by Henry James, I must mention as well the governesses/teachers, both Miss. Jessl and the other one, whose name i can’t remember who I’ll simple refer to as “the psycho one”, in The Turn Of The Screw, who were very much the opposite of Jane Eyre. Yikes!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you!

      Sandy Dennis was indeed an excellent actress who died way too young. I never saw the “Up The Down Staircase” movie she was in; like you, I’ve wanted to read the book.

      Yes, Jane Eyre was an excellent teacher who overcame a lot in life — and “The Aspern Papers” is one of my favorite Henry James novels. “The Turn of the Screw,” not so much.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thanks Dave. I never realized that The Aspern Papers were about the letters and poems Percy Shelley wrote to Mary Shelley’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. I just watched a remake of the movie, as well at the older version, The Lost Moment, based on James’s book. The remake was dreadful; however, the older movie is not without it’s charm being pretty much 40s film noir. Am including here’s a little bit of news re; Janet Todd’s new book “Jane Austen and Shelly In The Garden” now on my tbr list as well. Susi https://youtu.be/TwgQQA9ICpc

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for the follow-up comment, Susi!

          Wow — I didn’t know “The Aspern Papers” had that Shelley-inspired connection. Fascinating!

          And any book with a Jane Austen connection has a very good chance of being popular… 🙂

          Like

  6. Such an interesting topic, Dave, and I love books about teachers! Being a former elementary teacher, I loved Ms. Frizzle, of course:) A novel that I thoroughly enjoyed (and may now read again!) is “Dancing in a Distant Place” by Isla Dewar. The main character’s husband dies and has gambled away all their money and possessions. She begins a new life teaching in Scotland after moving her two children there. She’s a different sort of teacher and makes a wonderful difference for her lucky students.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. You brought up great memories of watching and reading Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus with my son, Thomas, who is now a Phd candidate at SFU in environmental studies. Why I mention this is because many wondered if he would ever be able to attend university given that he was “home schooled”. We enrolled Thomas in a distance education program through the BC Ministry of education from grade 3 – 12, which provided the experience of virtual learning before it became popular and now, in many areas, has become an essential part of education. (We travelled a great deal and he had many outside activities that prevented him from attending a regular school setting) His interaction with his on-line teachers was amazing. They encouraged him to explore new areas of learning, while building his research capabilities. HIs outside social activities gave him balance. Distance education is not for everyone, but when you have Ms Frizzle it does make learning more accessible. I believe that education is constantly evolving. Books are at the centre of it all. Which reminds me of another quote (you knew that I would have one, didn’t you) As Shelbe Foote wrote: “A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.”

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca!

      Nice to have memories of watching excellent kid shows with one’s children. 🙂 I watched “The Magic School Bus” (among other shows) with my older daughter, too. My younger daughter was more into “Dora the Explorer,” “Martha Speaks,” “The Wiggles,” etc.

      Fascinating educational history for your son! Seems to have worked extraordinarily well. Congratulations to him, you, and Don!

      “A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library” — that is a magnificent quote!!!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Hi Dave, To Sir, With Love is a wonderful book. I loved it when I read it years ago. Mr Brooke from Little Women who marries Meg and Professor Bhaer who marries Jo, were both great educators. Worst educators in books would be Wackford Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby, Mr. Brocklehurst from Jane Eyre and Delores Umbridge from Harry Potter. Laura Ingalls Wilder became a teacher and did well at her first [horrible] school.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Robbie, for all those teacher and professor mentions from “Little Women,” etc.!

      Yikes — just the thought of “educators” like Mr. Brocklehurst and Dolores Umbridge make one’s blood boil. Greedy, corrupt people with nefarious agendas hardly belong in the teaching profession, but that’s of course sometimes the way of the world (in fiction and in real life).

      Wackford Squeers — one of the best names ever! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Another great topic, Dave, thank you! I’m so pleased to see Mr Chipping get a mention. I read somewhere that the idea behind TV series Breaking Bad was for teacher Walter White to go from Mr Chips to Scarface, which I really hope is true! David Powlett-Jones is a great, almost Stoner-esque, teacher in beautifully written To Serve Them All My Days by R F Delderfield. Of course there are plenty of teachers through Dickens’ novels, mostly awful characters. Mr M’Choakumchild in Hard Times is one such example (and a fabulous example of Dickens’ approach to naming his characters with flair and descriptive purpose). Two teachers in David Copperfield, which I am currently reading, are the harsh Mr Creakle and the kind but rather vacant Dr Strong. And an honorable mention to a modern book featuring a 1950s teacher. Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce features the eponymous Miss Benson and is a delightful ‘girls own adventure romp’ with a touching look at female friendship.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I am so glad that you mentioned “To Serve Them All My Days by R F Delderfield” Liz. I watched the mini-series in the 1980s on Masterpiece theatre – simply brilliant. At the time, I never suspected that it was a book, but now I have found it, thanks to your mention. I especially appreciated this book because it spoke about education from the teacher/professor point of view. Usually, we read about teachers at the end of their teaching careers grateful for the opportunity to teach the next generation of leaders. They bask in the reflected glory of those they taught, which is a very good thing, but I know that many would have liked to pursue other vocations that would spark their creative spirits. Teaching is about a lot of drudge work of marking assignments, writing reports, ensuring that students passed exams, following a structured curriculum. This was the essence of a recent book I read: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. The plot summary: “Raimund Gregorius, a Swiss Professor, abandons his lectures and buttoned-down life to embark on a thrilling adventure that will take him on a journey to the very heart of himself.”

      Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Liz!

      Mr. Chipping is definitely a memorable, sympathetic character in a wonderful novel.

      I love that possible character-arc inspiration for “Breaking Bad”! (Which I’ve never watched.) Hope it’s true, too! 🙂

      “To Serve Them All My Days” sounds great! And I love the title!

      Excellent observation that there are more than a few teachers spread through Dickens’ work. Interesting that many of them are flawed. A psychologist might have a (Copper)field day figuring out why. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Rebecca!

        Glad you also mentioned “To Serve Them All My Days.” 🙂 Two recommendations (Liz and yours) definitely puts that on my to-read list.

        And I appreciate your take on how teaching — as wonderful and satisfying as it can be — can also involve plenty of drudgery. Part of the problem is that administrators and other bureaucrats (whether education bureaucrats or non-education bureaucrats) often don’t give teachers the creative license they deserve — creative license that would also be better for students, because teachers know what’s best for students a lot more than bureaucrats and politicians do.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree, Dave. Our educational model was founded on the industrial revolution system, which is evolving and being guided thanks to amazing and dedicated people. But there are huge pressures that bearing down on educators brought about by changes in technology and society. We are learning to learn differently.

          Liked by 2 people

  10. Well you bagged Jean Brodie. And you are right, while she was quite something, she had a darker agenda. Also Mr Chips and Ricky from To Sir, With Love. So I am going to go for varied ones that stood out. Nicholas Nickleby, assistant to the aptly named Wackford, beloved of the delusional Fanny and friend..most importantly.. of Mike. Jo March and the Prof because they go onto run a school and the perfectly dreadful but epically written Trunchbull from Dahl’s Matilda.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. What an interesting book list you are giving us here about teachers:) I think that I would choose “Foreign Affairs”, because this teacher seems to be really smart!
    I immediately thought of Mr. Pip by LIoyd Jones, because the teacher in this book is not really one by profession, but by reading Great Expectations with the children in Papua New Guinea island of Bouganiville (South Pacific) during the cruel civil war makes the children escape from their terrible situation and instills, especially on Mathilda, a moral code. I read this book with my learners and I am convinced that they liked it too.
    Many thanks, Dave, for your very interesting proposals and, I remember, of course “STONER”!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Martina, for your comment and kind words!

      “Foreign Affairs” is indeed a well-worth-reading novel. I love literature with really smart characters, too. 🙂

      Yes, as you say, novels can be great escapist vehicles, and instill (often indirectly) moral lessons. All sounds good to me!

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Some great mentions of books here that are on my list To Be Read at some point! And of course ‘Stoner’ is a brilliant book.
    The one professor that I always remember is Coleman Silk in ‘The Human Stain’ by Philip Roth. I read this quite some years ago and I’m sure a lot of it was lost on me at the time, but there were aspects of this story that were quite memorable and I enjoyed it very much.
    Robertson Davies is an author I first discovered through ‘The Rebel Angels’, the first in ‘The Cornish Trilogy’. Perhaps a little dense but I really enjoyed it. This is set in a university and is full of educators – good and bad – from defrocked monks to power hungry professors. Parlabane is a particularly unpleasant character, although not technically one of the faculty he has a lot of knowledge to impart.
    My term begins in earnest tomorrow so I shall be picking up with some old favourites like Macbeth and Mr Scrooge and not forgetting those wayward boys in ‘Lord of the Flies’.

    Liked by 7 people

  13. Quite a review about teachers, it actually took me back to remember some of my own old school day teachers, most possibly death by now, we had the lot, from the very dedicated, who thought me a great method to learn biology, or math, to the sloth, and uncaring, who rather will say: “Open the book and read this passage.” And just go to sleep wearing is dark lenses, it made my favorite subject History, dull, and boring. Of the list you provide I remember the 1969 movie with Peter O’ Toole playing Mr. Chips. and of course Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
    But I am afraid I haven’t read a lot of the titles you mention, my reading proclivities focused somewhere else.
    Great review.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, theburningheart!

      Yes, teachers in fiction can remind us of our own school days. I’ve had many more positive than negative experiences with teachers, but there are always exceptions. It takes a lot to make history boring. 😦

      I’ve never seen the movie versions of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” but I’ve heard they’re good. As you probably know, there’s also a 1939 film version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes, I am aware, there’s an old version do not remember seeing it.
        Well, you get some real good teachers, most mediocre, and a few really bad, my History teacher was famous for being bad, I wonder how even got a job at my school, since my school was the best in town, but I think has to do with government regulations, on my native country education, was very much controlled by the Ministry of Education, and politics, and favors played a big role to get connected, plus teachers are syndicated, or they were, at the time, ignore if they are now.
        On the bright side I am a reader, since I was five years old, and read a lot since, no need for me to learn it at school, or otherwise missed, the excuse of the lazy.
        Hell, I learned English by myself when I was twelve with a great book I still posses, from my father’s bookshelf, an old Robertson book and even taught my son, and quite a few friends using the Jacotot method.
        By the way the book it’s out of print, but I got copies for friends, from India, they look cheap, but its the same book. 😊

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thank you for the follow-up comment! I guess I, and my daughters, have had better luck with teachers over the years. Thought at least 90% were good or great. Yes, a shame when some bad teachers end up being hired and staying.

          Reading is totally a great way to self-educate, at any age!!!

          Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s